China welcomes home her prodigal painter son

It could have been a tricky manoeuvre. But with utmost skill and without a word, China's most successful modern painter guided one of the country's ageing deputy prime ministers past the larger-than-life, full-frontal female attractions of Reclining Nude towards the safer territory of his portrait of a (fully clothed) Young Cellist.

As the posse of black-raincoated public-security officials roughly elbowed out of the way anyone conceivably near the path of the 70-year-old government official, a senior representative from the organising British gallery asked the henchmen whether it might be appropriate to offer the VIP a glass of wine. "He does not drink," barked back the bodyguard, shoving her to one side.

Such are the challenges of bringing an art show to Peking. But at least the London gallery, Marlborough Fine Art, had been forewarned of the ban on nails for hanging paintings at the exhibition venue, the China National Museum of Fine Arts. Yards of golden chain had instead been brought to secure the huge oil canvases and smaller drawings for "The Homecoming of Chen Yifei", a retrospective of the contemporary mainland painter whose "romantic realism" paintings have pioneered a new commercial status for modern Chinese art.

Last October, for instance, Love Song, which portrays a Chinese couple playing musical instruments, sold at auction in Peking for 1.98m yuan (pounds 150,000). Four of his recent Tibetan series have also sold in recent months, making a total of around pounds 450,000.

For 50-year-old Chen Yifei, the current show is his first in China since he departed for the United States in 1980. It opened just before Christmas in Shanghai, his home town, where Chen was besieged by adoring fans delighted that a local artist had achieved such international commercial acclaim.

This weekend the exhibition transferred to Peking, where the VIP guest- list indicated more than a passing interest from government leaders. As well as the 70-year-old vice-Prime Minister, Zou Jiahua, the official opening was attended by Li Ruihuan, a standing-committee member of the Politburo no less.

It was not always thus. Chen graduated from art college in Shanghai just as the Cultural Revolution started. It was a mixed time for the young artist.

His technical skills and draughtsmanship were employed churning out socialist realist propaganda art, punctuated by periods of criticism for lack of revolutionary ardour. His heroic portrait of a Chinese soldier, Eulogy of the Yellow River, was attacked for using colours which were "too soft". Chen said: "At that time all the paintings should be `red' and `bright'." The most serious trouble was over Red Flag whose realistic depiction of soldiers in battle was attacked for "propagating the horrors of war".

By the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chen's parents - persecuted as both intellectuals and Christians - had died. In his career, however, his technical skills had triumphed over political criticism and he emerged as one of China's most important modern artists. "Fate", as he puts it, led to an opportunity to move to the US in 1980, where he was taken up by Armand Hammer's gallery and launched down the artistic path towards riches.

Financial wellbeing has come easier then critical acclaim for his near-photographic style of painting. "I worked as a picture restorer for one year when I arrived in the US," he said. "So I wanted to try to use the Western, very traditional painting techniques."

The most recent works, giant canvases of Tibetan people, have become more impressionistic, but Chen still bristles at the "political reasons" why Western critics prefer abstract or avant-garde art as an expression of new freedoms in China.

While Chen may gripe at critics, his financial success looks assured. Marlborough Fine Art intends to exhibit him at several international art fairs this year, and will hold a London show with his work in June. According to Chen, his parents wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps as a chemical engineer because "artists were always poor".